Two Nearby Tracks That Are Worlds Apart

Posted in IndyCar on July 18, 2018 by Oilpressure

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Yesterday, we got confirmation on what had been rumored for a while – that WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca will be on the 2019 IndyCar schedule. The only thing close to a surprise at this point was that we learned that it will serve as the site of the season finale in 2019, covering the weekend of Sep 20-22. Last Friday, that rumor came pretty close to fact when Laguna Seca sent out a tweet saying that the Verizon IndyCar Series would be running there next season, and that a press conference would be happening Tuesday to formally announce it. That’s about as confirmed as you can get when the actual track tweets it out.

Social media went crazy. It seems that almost everyone is ecstatic to have open-wheel racing back at Laguna Seca where CART/Champ Car had an uninterrupted run from 1983 through 2004. Well, everyone except nearby Sonoma Raceway. They have made it clear that they are not interested in having a competing race so close by. Sonoma is about an hour north of San Francisco, while Laguna Seca is in Monterey County – about an hour and a half south of San Francisco.

Longtime readers here know that I have always been perplexed why everyone talks about how beautiful Sonoma Raceway is, although when I watch it on television – it always looked like a dustbowl hosting a boring race. People that I know and trust have told me that I need to go to Sonoma to appreciate it. So a couple of months ago, Susan and I decided to take their advice. We bought plane tickets and made our hotel reservations – at a time when we had no idea that Sonoma may be going away.

I say all of that to say that I have no real feelings about Sonoma one way or the other, other than the fact that I’ve usually said bad things about their race.

I hate to rain on all the feel-good coming from the IndyCar camp right now, and I know I’m in the vast minority on this. But I’m thinking that I may be missing something here because I am not at all excited about returning to Laguna Seca – especially at the expense of losing a track that may not be that thrilling on television, but has been a good partner to IndyCar since they started running there in 2005.

I’m wondering what it is that had fans so giddy on social media last week and yesterday. What am I missing here? We all know about The Pass that took place in 1996. For those with short memories, Bryan Herta was driving for Bobby Rahal and was seemingly headed to his first career victory. He was being chased by Alex Zanardi, but Herta was holding him off. As they headed into “the corkscrew” area of the track on the final lap, Zanardi dive-bombed Herta – cutting across the dirt (dust), with Zanardi’s car bouncing nearly out of control. The operative word there was “nearly”. Somehow, Zanardi pulled off the risky move and ripped the win away from Herta. Twenty-two years later, it has become a signature move for Zanardi and Laguna Seca.

So that is one memorable highlight for Indy cars from Laguna Seca. Tell me another one. The only other moment that I can think of is at the Marlboro Challenge in 1991, when Rick Mears had a fuel pickup problem while leading, heading out of the final turn and getting passed by Michael Andretti.

In over twenty years of Indy car racing at Laguna Seca – those are the two standout moments for me. The rest is just a blur of parades surrounded by dust and hills, just like Sonoma – but on an even tighter track that is harder to pass on.

I’m thinking that fans are remembering The Pass and are thinking that singular moment is symbolic of the kind of action we can expect from Laguna Seca.

If Laguna Seca was simply an addition to the schedule, I would have no problem with it. But when we were hearing this as just a rumor, many IndyCar insiders were already saying that this was going to ruffle the feathers of the management at Sonoma Raceway, whose contract expires at the conclusion of this season. It did. Mark Miles knew this was going to infuriate Sonoma beforehand, but pushed for a deal anyway.

Reportedly, Laguna Seca is going to pay IndyCar an annual sanctioning fee of between $1.2 – 1.5 million, which is apparently substantially more than what Sonoma is currently paying IndyCar or willing to pay to renew the contract. Did Miles know that Sonoma would not come close to that amount, so he followed the money? I guess he figured if sponsors enjoy going to Sonoma, they’ll like Monterey just as much because they are both in the Bay Area. Since I’ve never been to either location (yet), I can’t speak to their similarities or differences.

There is an old saying that it’s better to choose the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know. Sonoma Raceway is a known quantity. Yes it’s produced some snoozers in the past, but what track hasn’t? It’s also not my idea of a great place to decide a championship, but the sponsors seem to think otherwise. They apparently love being wined and dined in wine country. I don’t recall hearing that sponsors loved going to Monterey when CART held their season finales out there.

I don’t pretend to know all of the details that made Mark Miles risk alienating a good partner like Sonoma, by signing a deal with Laguna Seca. At first, I suspected this might be a bargaining ploy to use as leverage with Sonoma. Now I’m convinced it was and Sonoma called their bluff.

I may be wrong, but I’m afraid that IndyCar may regret adding Laguna Seca to the schedule. Some say that they should have started the season at Laguna Seca and finished it with Sonoma – putting the two events half a year apart. I’m not even sure that would have worked because I’m not sure there are enough fans or corporate sponsors in the area with deep enough pockets to support two similar events as close to each other as these are. Yes it’s a very affluent area – but there are other sporting and non-sporting events out there begging for the corporate dollar along with support from fans.

The area is home to the San Francisco Forty-Niners, (for now) the Oakland Raiders, the San Francisco Giants, the Oakland A’s, the Golden State Warriors, the San Jose Sharks and the Sacramento Kings not too far away. On the college athletic front, Cal and Stanford both call the Bay Area home. Sonoma currently hosts an IndyCar race as well as a NASCAR Cup race. With so many teams and events, the Bay Area is already spread pretty thin. Would they really support two IndyCar events per season? But given the announcement that Laguna Seca is now the season finale – I think it’s a moot point. I expect this September will be the last appearance for IndyCar at Sonoma Speedway.

Who knows? Maybe Laguna Seca will magically start producing signature moments on an annual basis. After all, it only took them fourteen races to produce The Pass in twenty-two years of racing there.

Based on the reaction I’ve seen on social media, I know not many – if any – agree with me on this. I’m prepared to receive my share of heat on my stance. Just keep it civil. But I do feel that IndyCar has not made the right move this time. I hope I’m wrong.

George Phillips

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Random Thoughts On Toronto

Posted in IndyCar on July 16, 2018 by Oilpressure

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The Honda Indy Toronto is usually a wild stop for the Verizon IndyCar Series, and yesterday was no exception. It is not an exaggeration whatsoever to say that things got crazy right at the drop of the green flag. Heading into Turn One in the shadow of the Prince’s Gate, the entire field was acting as if they were on the final lap instead of the opening lap. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more aggressive first lap the entire way around the track as the one I saw yesterday. Everyone was driving with a sense of urgency.

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Toronto Preview

Posted in IndyCar on July 13, 2018 by Oilpressure

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Once again, it’s time for the Verizon IndyCar Series to descend upon Exhibition Place in Toronto, Ontario. For the past decade, this has been a bittersweet date for me because after a one-year absence due to reunification in 2008, Toronto appeared on the IndyCar schedule in 2009 taking the date previously occupied by the Firestone 200 at Nashville Superspeedway – due to the ineptitude of that track’s management, but I digress.

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Playing Hardball With The IndyCar Schedule

Posted in IndyCar on July 11, 2018 by Oilpressure

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This time of year is usually known as the start to the silly season – that time of year when rumors start flying about which drivers may be switching to which team for next season, or what driver may be dropped from a team’s line-up. While there are a few rumors swirling about Scott Dixon’s future, there isn’t a whole lot of buzz just yet about most drivers’ future plans. The same cannot be said about the 2019 IndyCar schedule.

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Random Thoughts On Iowa

Posted in IndyCar on July 9, 2018 by Oilpressure

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I think it’s safe to say that yesterday’s Iowa Corn 300 at Iowa Speedway did not go as planned. For a while, it looked as if Josef Newgarden was turning loose another beatdown of the field – just like he did in 2016. But on Lap 256, he was passed by James Hinchcliffe – who had been lurking in second place for most of the day. Once Hinchcliffe got passed, he opened up a five-second lead on Newgarden as The Mayor of Hinchtown was administering his own beatdown.

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Iowa Preview

Posted in IndyCar on July 6, 2018 by Oilpressure

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Before I discuss this weekend’s upcoming Iowa Corn 300, I would like to pass along my condolences to the entire Andretti family over the loss of Dee Ann Andretti, the matriarch of the close knit Andretti family, who passed away this past Tuesday after complications from open heart surgery. She was the wife of Mario, the mother to Michael, Jeff and Barbie Dee and grandmother to seven grandchildren including Marco. Please keep the Andretti family in your thoughts and prayers during this time.

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The Emergence of the Perfect Villain

Posted in IndyCar on July 2, 2018 by Oilpressure

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Sports are all about rivalries. In fact, they are essential for the long-term survival of a sport. There are countless examples in all level of sports – all the way from professional sports to cross-town high school rivals. Yankees-Red Sox, Bears-Packers, Alabama-Auburn, Michigan-Ohio State, Indiana-Kentucky are just a few examples of bitter rivals that have fueled their respective sports for over a century in some cases.

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